What was the Lafayette Ecadrille (1916-1917)?

Introduction

The La Fayette Escadrille (French: Escadrille de La Fayette) was the name of the French Air Force unit escadrille N 124 during the First World War (1914-1918).

Insignia of the N 124 La Fayette Escadrille.

This escadrille of the Aéronautique Militaire was composed largely of American volunteer pilots flying fighters. It was named in honour of the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolutionary War. In September 1917, the escadrille was transferred to the US Army under the designation 103rd Aero Squadron. In 1921, The French Air Force recreated a N124 unit who claimed lineage from the war-time La Fayette escadrille and is now part of the escadron 2/4 La Fayette.

Brief History

Dr. Edmund L. Gros, a founder of the American Hospital of Paris and organizer of the American Ambulance Field Service, and Norman Prince, a Harvard-educated lawyer and an American expatriate already flying for France, led the attempts to persuade the French government of the value of a volunteer American air unit fighting for France. The aim was to have their efforts recognised by the American public and thus, it was hoped, the resulting publicity would rouse interest in abandoning neutrality and joining the fight. Authorized by the French Air Department on 21 March 1916, the Escadrille de Chasse Nieuport 124 (Escadrille Américaine) was deployed on April 20 in Luxeuil-les-Bains, France, near Switzerland’s border. Despite the unit’s weak notorious status in the United States, the Escadrille proved useful for the French and Americans, taking into consideration that before the First World War, aircraft were not considered combat units. Initially, there were seven Americans pilots: Victor E. Chapman, Elliot C. Cowdin, Weston (Bert) Hall, James R. McConnell, Norman Prince, Kiffin Rockwell, and William Thaw. The full roster included 38 pilots.

The unit’s aircraft, mechanics, and uniforms were French, as was the commander, Captain Georges Thénault. Five French pilots were also on the roster, serving at various times in command positions. Raoul Lufbery, a French-born American citizen, became the squadron’s first, and ultimately their highest scoring flying ace, with 16 confirmed victories.

Two unofficial members of the Escadrille Américaine, lion cubs named Whiskey and Soda, provided countless moments of relief from battle stress to fliers.

A German objection filed with the US government, over the actions of a supposed neutral nation, led to the name change to La Fayette Escadrille in December 1916, as the original name implied that the US was allied to France rather than neutral.

The Escadrille was disbanded on 18 February 1918. The American personnel transferred to the United States Army Air Service as the 103d Aero Squadron, while the French formed the Escadrille SPA.124 Jeanne d’Arc. A total of 224 Americans served in the unit. Of those, 51 died in combat, while another 11 died of other causes. Fifteen became prisoners of war. Eleven pilots became aces. 

Not all American pilots were in the Lafayette Escadrille; over 200 fought for France as part of the La Fayette Flying Corps. On 03 April 1918, eleven American pilots from the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force were assigned to Escadrille N.471, an air defense squadron stationed near Paris. American flyers served with this French unit until 18 July 1918, and it is sometimes referred to as the Second Escadrille Américaine.

Later, the Escadron de Chasse 2/4 La Fayette retook the unit designation of “La Fayette”, this time however in the French Air Force.

Combat

The first major action seen by the squadron was 13 May 1916 at the Battle of Verdun and five days later, Kiffin Rockwell recorded the unit’s first aerial victory. On 23 June, the Escadrille suffered its first fatality when Victor Chapman was shot down over Douaumont. The unit was posted to the front until September 1916, when the unit was moved back to Luxeuil-les-Bains in 7 Army area. On 23 September, Rockwell was killed when his Nieuport was downed by the gunner in a German Albatros observation plane and in October, Norman Prince was fatally injured after crashing on final approach to his airfield. The squadron, flying Nieuport, later Spad, scouts, suffered heavy losses, but it received replacements until a total of 38 American pilots eventually served with the squadron. So many Americans volunteered to fly for France that they were eventually farmed out to other French squadrons. As a group, the Americans who flew in the war for France’s air service, the Aéronautique militaire, are collectively known as the La Fayette Flying Corps. Altogether, 265 American volunteers served in the corps.

La Fayette Escadrille banner.

On 08 February 1918, the squadron was disbanded, and 12 of its American members inducted into the U.S. Air Service as members of the 103rd Aero Squadron. For a brief period, it retained its French aircraft and mechanics. Most of its veteran members were set to work training newly arrived American pilots. The 103rd was credited with a further 45 kills before the armistice went into effect on 11 November. The French Escadrille SPA.124, also known as the Jeanne d’Arc Escadrille, continued Lafayette Escadrille’s traditions in the Service Aéronautique.

Rif War

In the mid-1920s, France recruited some 16 former American fliers (nine officers and seven warrant officers) with World War I combat experience for service in the French Army of Africa, aiming to forestall American public and diplomatic support for the Rif tribes rebelling against Spanish and French colonial rule. Charles Sweeny proposed to reconstitute the Lafayette Escadrille. However, Paul Ayres Rockwell, a brother of fallen Escadrille Américaine’s pilot Kiffin Rockwell, wrote that “the attempt to call the unit the Lafayette Escadrille had been abandoned almost before we left Paris, as there was not one former pilot of the famous World War squadron in our group.” The pilots were inducted into the French Foreign Legion in July 1925, where they formed the Escadrille de la Guarde Chérifienne in the Sultan’s Guard Escadrille of the French Air Force. The rogue American squadron carried out the bombardment of Chefchaouen on 17 September 1925 against warnings from the US Department of State. Public protests in the United States led to the Chérifienne Escadrille dissolution in 1925.

Casualties

Nine pilots died in the Lafayette Escadrille while others perished after leaving the unit. More sustained non-fatal injuries. The planes flown were flimsy, and not as safe as those of later years. Engines and other parts failed, and machine-guns often jammed when they were needed. One man asked to be moved back to his infantry unit, where “he could be safe.” The first pilot to be killed in action was Victor Chapman. Edmond Genet became the first American casualty of World War I following the US entry into the war. Other Americans had died previous to the US declaration of war, but since Genet had been active in the Escadrille since before the US entry into the war, his death only a few days after the US declaration of war made him the first official US casualty.

Members

After the Great War, membership in the Escadrille Lafayette was claimed by over 4,000 people, “including a dozen well-known Hollywood personalities and several high government officials.

Also, from the beginning there was a great deal of confusion between American pilots who were members of the Lafayette Escadrille, a designated all-American aviation squadron of the French Service Aeronautique; and the Lafayette Flying Corps, an unofficial paper organisation highlighting in its roster published during the war the names of approximately 231 American volunteer aviators who flew with more than 90 French operational escadrilles. Already existing confusion was exacerbated after a screening of the film Flyboys in 2006.

Five French officers and 38 American pilots, also known as “The Valiant 38”, were members of the Lafayette Escadrille.

French Officers

  • Colonel Philippe Fequant.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Antonin Brocard.
  • Captain Georges Thenault.
  • Lieutenant Alfred de Laage de Meux.
  • Lieutenant Charles Nungesser.
  • Lieutenant Antoine Arnoux de Maison-Rouge.
  • Lieutenant Louis Verdier-Fauvety.

American Pilots

A † symbol indicates that the individual was killed in action, including those who subsequently entered the Air Service, or died of wounds received.

  • First Lieutenant Stuart Emmet Edgar.
  • First Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr. †.
  • Horace Clyde Balsley.
  • Stephen Sohier Bigelow.
  • Ray Claflin Bridgman.
  • Andrew Courtney Campbell Jr.†.
  • Victor Emmanuel Chapman†.
  • Elliott Christopher Cowdin II.
  • Charles Heave Dolan.
  • James Ralph Doolittle†.
  • John Armstrong Drexel.
  • William Edward Dugan Jr.
  • Christopher William Ford.
  • Edmond Charles Clinton Genet†.
  • James Norman Hall.
  • Bert Hall.
  • Willis Bradley Haviland.
  • Thomas Moses Hewitt Jr.
  • Dudley Lawrence Hill.
  • Edward Foote Hinkle.
  • Ronald Wood Hoskier†.
  • Charles Chouteau Johnson.
  • Henry Sweet Jones.
  • Walter Lovell.
  • Raoul Lufbery†.
  • James Rogers McConnell†.
  • Douglas MacMonagle †.
  • Kenneth Archibald Marr.
  • Didier Masson.
  • Edwin C. “Ted” Parsons.
  • Paul Pavelka†.
  • David M. Peterson.
  • Frederick Henry Prince Jr.
  • Norman Prince†.
  • Kiffin Yates Rockwell†.
  • Robert Lockerbie Rockwell.
  • Laurence Dana Rumsey Jr.
  • Robert Soubiran.
  • William Thaw.
  • Harold Buckley Willis.

Citations

The Group La Fayette received a total of eight citations at the orders of Air Army, bearing the right to wear the Fourragere with ribbon colours of the Croix de guerre 1914-1918 (France), as well as the Fourragere with ribbon colours of the Médaille Militaire.

Summary

On decommission of the unit on 01 January 1918, the following registry noted:

  • 267 Americans volunteered in French aviation;
  • 255 received their pilot brevet;
  • 108 served at the front;
  • 66 were killed, out of which 51 killed in action;
  • 19 were wounded;
  • 15 were made prisoners of war; and
  • 199 victories were known to be officially recognised.

Honorary Members

Amelia Earhart on 06 June 1932, a couple of days after becoming the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, was made an honorary member of the Escadrille La Fayette.

World War II

La Fayette Escadrille became the third flight unit (Escadrille) of the Groupe de Chasse 2/5 La Fayette.

Tributes

  • La Fayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery, Villeneuve-l’Étang Imperial Estate, in Marnes-la-Coquette, Hauts-de-Seine, outside of Paris, France, the final work of French architect Alexandre Marcel, 1928.
    • The memorial commemorates the birthplace of American combat aviation, and serves as a symbol of the Franco-American comradeship during World War I.
    • This site honours the American volunteer pilots who flew with French squadrons during the Great War, and is the final resting place for some of America’s first combat aviators and their French officers.
    • Dedicated in 1928, the memorial cemetery consists of an ornate central arch, half the size of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with a French inscription on the façade, and an English translation on the rear.
    • The central arch is flanked by wings on either side that include open hallways terminating in end pavilions.
    • A reflecting pool runs the length of the structure.
    • Behind the memorial is a semi-circular terrace that forms the roof of the crypt below.
    • Stained-glass windows in the crypt depict the major battles of the Western Front.
    • In the memorial crypt are 68 sarcophagi, one for each of the aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps who lost their lives during World War I.
    • Forty-nine of these aviators are entombed in the crypt along with two of their French commanding officers.
    • The remainder rest in other locations, or their remains were never recovered.
    • By the early 21st century, decades of delayed maintenance to the memorial had led to structural damage, water intrusion and corrosion that required large-scale repair.
    • Understanding its significance in the history of American military aviation, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), through an agreement with the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Foundation and the French government that included financial support, led restoration efforts in 2015 and 2016, in time for the 100th anniversary of the formation of the squadron.
    • In January 2017, ABMC officially assumed ownership and responsibility for the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery, making it the 9th commemorative World War I cemetery administered by this federal agency.
  • Memorial to the American Volunteers.
    • On 04 July 1923, the President of the French Council of State, Raymond Poincaré, dedicated a monument in the Place des États-Unis, Paris, to the Americans who had volunteered to fight in World War I in the service of France.
  • A statue by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum titled Aviator (1919) was erected on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in the memory of James R. McConnell, who was killed during the war.
  • Two other memorials are dedicated to McConnell and located in Carthage, North Carolina.
    • The first is a granite column flanked by two cannon, the other is a granite stone inscribed in French at the community house.
  • Norman Prince tomb, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
  • There is a plaque in the memory of Kiffen Yates Rockwell in Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the college Rockwell attended before the war.

Fictional Accounts

The story of the Lafayette Escadrille has been depicted in three feature films:

  • The Legion of the Condemned (1928), a William A. Wellman film;
  • Lafayette Escadrille (1958), a Wellman film starring Tab Hunter, and
  • Flyboys (2006), directed by Tony Bill and starring James Franco.

The Lafayette Escadrille also appears in “Attack of the Hawkmen”, an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indy is temporarily assigned to the group as an aerial reconnaissance photographer.

The exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille are also captured in several works of historical fiction including: Falcons of France by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (1929) and To the Last Man by Jeffrey Shaara.

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